This weekend’s PlayStation Experience wasn’t just about the big franchise news. Yes, we are totally freaking out about The Last of Us 2, but we also spent lots of time on the show floor looking at other independent projects that will be coming out on Sony’s console. Here are some of our favorite indie games from the event that you should keep on your radar.
If Vblank Entertainment's Retro City Rampage was an attempt to make Grand Theft Auto into an NES game, then their sequel-ish second game Shakedown: Hawaii is all about emulating the feel of a NeoGEO. Sprites are bigger, more detailed, and better animated, and everything blows up into nice, big, pixelated fireballs. But where Retro City Rampage's carnage was all in service of its pop culture references, Shakedown: Hawaii wants you to take over the property in its cities, whether it's through story missions, or causing enough destruction to devalue the land to buy it up cheap. Look for it on PS4, Vita, and knowing developer Brian Provinciano probably an actual NeoGEO, some time in 2017.
Nex Machina is a lightning-fast twin-stick shooter with a thumping soundtrack and incredible voxel-based graphics and explosions - par for the course for Resogun developer Housemarque. But for Nex Machina, the team has collaborated with Eugene Jarvis, designer of classic arcade games like Robotron and Smash TV, to bring new life to their take on twitch action. The result is a blend of the best of both worlds; a game where you race around gravity-defying levels, save smartphone-obsessed humans from evil robots, dash past lasers, and blow everything up into a shower of colorful cubes while bobbing your head to a rad, synthwave soundtrack. Nex Machina should be out some time in mid-2017.
Dino Frontier isn't a particularly novel concept - god games like Black and White have been around forever, letting you control a population of humans to do your bidding while helping them build up their own cities. But by putting it in VR, the very nature of the god game becomes physical, as Dino Frontier lets you pinch these virtual denizens by their shirt, pick them up, and drop them wherever you need them. Your little residence - which looks like something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, with its orange dirt roads and towering columns of rocks - is also beset by dinosaurs, which you can hunt, train, and allow your little humans to ride on to attack more vicious beasts. It's a god game which actually lets you be god - in a virtual sense, anyway. Look for it in 2017.
Mascot platformers are having a renaissance of late, and Sumo Digital - responsible for helping make everyone else's games, from LittleBigPlanet 3 to Crackdown 3 - is attempting to make its mark on the scene with its first original title. But rather than jumping between platforms, you play as a cute, cartoony snake, who must slither across grass, wind himself around and over bamboo sticks and other outcroppings, and collect various objects to complete devious levels. Collecting everything is where Snake Pass' more devious puzzles come into play, forcing you to think about how an actual snake would scale up the side of a cliff face or wend past a series of rotating platforms. The controls are pretty tricky at first, but once you get it, its cleverness shines through. It's coming to PC and PS4 sometime next year.
Divide reminds me a lot of sci-fi games like Out of this World or Flashback, but instead of being a side-scrolling platformer, Divide uses an overhead perspective, allowing you to use twin analog sticks to shoot enemies, as well as examine your surroundings and solve puzzles. After opening a mysterious package, you find yourself waking up in a futuristic world where the government has commodified humanity and gamified their very existence. There are also touches of John Carpenter, both in the excellent atmospheric synthesizer soundtrack, and in the AR goggles your character wears, which lets him see normally invisible paths and data points. Combat feels a little clunky at this stage, but even after playing for a half-hour or so, I'm very curious to see how this story plays out. Indie devs Exploding Tuba Studios are looking to release Divide some time in 2017.
Games don't come much more eccentrically indie than EarthNight, but that kind of bizarre individuality is what makes it so refreshing. The concept is something you've seen before - a left-to-right runner where you're dodging or bouncing on enemies and trying to snag a bevy of loot along the way - but the painterly art style and nuanced control of your character's momentum set it apart. Oh, and the entire game has you skydiving towards Earth, crashing atop dragons along the way, running along their backs, and then stabbing them repeatedly when you reach their heads so you can resume your divebomb descent. It's all scored with some hard-hitting chiptunes, and the two playable characters are both equally and endearingly weird: an old-looking fellow who's 40% beard, and a young girl imbued with dragon-slaying power courtesy of a host spirit.
Yes, it seems like every remotely challenging game these days immediately gets compared to Dark Souls - but it'd be downright irresponsible not to namedrop FromSoftware's famed series when talking about Death's Gambit. This brutally difficult 2D hack-'n'-slash imitates Souls biggest mainstays, from the green stamina meter underneath your red health bar, to the way enemy spawns and your limited stock of precious healing items always regenerate after resting at a waypoint. But the combat's heavy, labored attacks feel markedly different for a sidescroller, and Death's Gambit puts more emphasis on giant mythical creatures looming over your hardfought exploration. Between Death's Gambit and Eitr, Souls fans with a flair for the 16-bit era will be most pleased.
This pixelated platformer comes from the same team that made TowerFall, the modern party game classic that's best described as 'delightful'. That same charm shines through in Celeste, but you won't find multiplayer bow-and-arrow shenanigans here: this is a deceptively difficult climb up an icy mountain riddled with spikes and falling platforms. You play as Madeline, an intrepid girl who inherits the power to dash in mid-air from a mysterious bird (the same ability she had in the original Pico-8 version of the game). From there, you can explore the mountain's single-screen gauntlets of precision jump-and-dash timing, and seek out a bevy of secrets or tantalizing - and incredibly tricky to obtain - strawberries hovering along your path. The level designs have a bit of a mean streak if you're trying to be a completionist, but it's worth it to see Madeline's pleasant conversations with the quirky folks she meets on her way up the mountain.
Monsters and Monocles
If you enjoy the top-down, procedurally generated, cartoonishly chaotic shootouts of Enter the Gungeon, but wish you could share in all the mayhem with your pals, you need Monsters and Monocles in your life. This 16-bit style shoot-'em-up supports up to four players in both online and couch co-op play, dropping you into brightly colored mansions filled with all manner of ghouls and ghosts. The cast of Victorian characters makes this feel like a steampunk Smash TV, and like Gungeon, there's a an emphasis on goofy guns mixed in with a typical weapon pick-ups, like the almighty Crumpet Launcher.
This sequel to the swordfighting, friendship-testing game of one-on-one duels goes all-in on silliness, and it's as much of an endlessly replayable hoot as the first, if not moreso. Gone are the chunky pixels representing the players in the original - and in their place are two freakish-looking oafs who look and move like a pixel art conversion of claymation. Additional weapons - which you randomly spawn with - help mix up the pace, with broadswords, daggers, and bows atop the classic fencing swords, each with their own little advantages. The stages also skew away from the more frustrating or cheap-feeling mechanics that plagued the first (curse those conveyor belts), and they're gloriously gross, like fighting through the guts of an aging worm before coming out the other side to behold ornate statues sculpted from mounds of feces.
Here's one strictly for the masochists out there. You might recognize Flywrench from its guest appearance as an unassuming unlockable character in Super Meat Boy: a chunky white line that can bend itself to flap around at wildly uncontrollable speeds. Flywrench was one of the original 'ludicrously difficult' indies, and this reboot (also from Messhof, the makers of Nidhogg) has that same spirit of merciless - but with enough persistence, manageable - stages of pure, distilled difficulty. The premise is simple - change forms to control your momentum and pass through colored blockades - but the layouts you'll encounter will test your skills and your patience for repeated streaks of failure. For the right type of player, though, that kind of challenge leads to a blissful sense of accomplishment, and an eagerness to jump right into the next laborious level.
WonderBoy: The Dragon's Trap
If you owned a Sega Master System, there's a good chance this game is going to whisk you away to a magical land of nostalgia. It's a modern update to 1989's Wonder Boy 3: The Dragon's Trap, taking the original's chunky sprites and replacing them with drop-dead gorgeous hand-drawn art. As the adventurous Wonder Boy, you have the power to take on multiple animal forms, including a sword-wielding lion, fire-breathing dragon, nimble mouse, or aquatic merman. The physics and level designs feel decidedly old-school, which is part of the game's simple charm - and even if you're struggling to come to grips with controls that purposely feel about three decades old, the character and backdrop art is so pleasant that you'll be beaming nonetheless.
Battle Chef Brigade
This is the game for people who love Iron Chef America or Chopped. In Battle Chef Brigade, you’ll play as Mina, a young cook who wants to make a name for herself in the esteemed cooking competition. Each battle starts with hunting, as Mina gathers the ingredients to work with by killing fowl and fauna in the wild. It's well-executed if standard action game fare, but then she needs to compose a winning dish. The demo envisions cooking as a riff on match-three games, where matching creates more powerful flavors and a higher score. And of course you have to get it all done within the time limit. As she earns more fame and money, you'll be able to invest in better tools and learn more cooking skills. The snack-sized portion on display at PSX was deliciously fun and certainly whet my appetite for more.